Amita Makan ME 3 | | Art in South Africa
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ME 3

Fried Contemporary Gallery
28 October - 8 December 2012

View Catalogue prepared for ME 3 Exhibition courtesy of the Fried Contemporary Gallery, Pretoria: Me3_catalogue_2012.pdf

Photographs by Rupert de Beer

On the evening of the sixth day of the baby’s life, She is formally welcomed into the home and family and bestowed with a name. The ancient Hindu ritual of naming a baby is called ‘chhati’, meaning the sixth day. The priest consults the ancient Vedic astrological chart and selects her initials and names, based on the date, time and place of birth. The soles of her feet are painted with a bright red vermillion paste and pressed up against a sheet of paper capturing her tiny, delicate feet. A wooden pen-like instrument is dipped in vermillion and she is initiated into writing her name in Gujarati -‘Amita’ - boundless and infinite – and surname. The sheet of paper with her vermillion stained footprints is left alongside a pen with red ink and a clay lamp that burns through the night. This is done in anticipation of Goddess Vidatri, Creator of Destiny, who arrives after midnight to bless the new born’s feet and to weave her destiny….

For the ‘Me’ Series, my Self is explored through the Hindu ritual of naming a baby, ancient Sanskrit mantras, and the symbolism of colour. Drawing on my ancestral memory, I use hand embroidery and various fabrics as the medium of expression. My embroidery threads represent ‘the double helix strands of DNA that signify ancestral inheritance and individuality’.[1] These threads also represent ‘the thread of life, human destiny, and fate spun and woven by a divine power’.[2]

The concept and medium are integrally connected.

The ‘Bandhani’ sari is central to the series. This type of sari dates to the fifteenth century, originating in the Indian state of Gujarat, that faraway place of my ancestors.[3] This classic white sari stained with red vegetable dye is a bridal sari and is said to bring good luck to the wearer. The sari, I used in the series, was worn by my late mother on religious occasions, and it is infused with sacred prayers and replete with my childhood memories. The dissected sari, now reinvented, anchors me to my birth, my ancestors, the past, and the present.

In Hindu culture, red represents love and ‘Shakti’, the feminine principle. Red is associated with auspicious occasions, such as birth of a baby and weddings. Vermillion powder is used in all Hindu rituals. Women mark their foreheads with vermillion as a symbol of marriage and fidelity. A delicate line of vermillion, drawn through the centre path of their hair, is a symbol of their fertility.

Vermillion is a powdered form of cinnabar the chief form in which mercury sulfide naturally occurs. The mercury gives the vermillion the bright red and alluring quality. The mercury also makes vermillion toxic. This inherent contradiction symbolizes the duality of life itself.

The three works, namely, ‘My 6 Day Feet’, ‘My Feet’ and ‘Self Portrait’ form an intimate narrative that begins on the sixth day of my life to the present.

For ‘My 6 Day Old Feet’, the foot imprints from my discolored chhati paper is embroidered using silken threads on fragile silk organza. This work is pivotal to the series as it recalls the day that my cultural and spiritual identity was irrevocably shaped.

The baby foot imprints, once a resplendent red, are now faded earth tones. The reverse side of three heavily embroidered and sequined circles cut out from my mother’s sari form the context of ‘My Six Day Feet’. My baby feet emerge from the plethora of threads, knots and circles of the mandala–like design.[4] Ancient Sanskrit mantras recited during the chhati are ritualistically and repetitively embroidered with vermillion colored silk threads. The circle is symbolic of the life-death-life cycle of Hinduism. The number ‘three’ represents the Hindu Trinity: Brahma, the Creator; Vishnu, the Preserver of Life; and Shiva, the Destroyer to which all life returns. ‘Three’ also represents the past, present and future.

In ‘My Feet’, I revisit the feet painting ritual of the ‘chatti’. My ‘chatti’ was marked with much celebration and happiness. The ritual of painting my feet and making the imprints, now, is solemn and solitary. My vermillion footprints are translated from the shredded and mottled reds from the sari onto a fragile silk organza. A primary function of embroidery was to strengthen and extend the life of the fabrics used by nomadic tribes.[5] Stitching the red shrapnel of sari becomes an act of reinforcing memories and strengthening my Self. The reverse of ‘My Feet’ replete with contours, detours, knots and loose ends forms a topographical map of my journey.

White is associated with love, life, death and mourning in Hinduism.

The final work ‘Self-Portrait’, I attempt to capture my Self through layers of net. I am surrounded by an array of traditional Indian circular motives cut out from my Mother’s sari. The circle represents the Self and the delicate layers of fabric, my layered Self. I carefully trace the delicate contours that make up my face with fine and fragile stitches. Snake like chain stitches, lifted from my mother’s sari are woven through my head forming my hair. These chain stitches are called ‘mochi bharat’, named after my Mochi (cobbler) ancestors who introduced this stitch to Court garments and shoes in the nineteenth century.


[1] Ronnberg, A The Book of Symbols Reflections on Archetypal Symbols, Taschen, 2010, page 516.

[2] Cooper, J.C, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols ,, Thames and Hudson, 1978, page 170.

[3] The ‘Bandhani’ sari is in itself a work of art. It stems from the Hindi word ‘to tie up’, and it is a tie and dye sari.

[4] Mandala is a diagrammatic representation of the universe in Hinduism.

[5] Dhamija, J, Handicrafts of India , National Book Trust, India, 2002, page 31.

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